Joe, the Plumber – Why Should He?

In the 2008 Presidential Campaign, Barack Obama met Joe The Plumber in the crowd and spent quite a bit of time with him. Joe told Mr. Obama that he would like to start a plumbing business, but was worried about the many obstacles to his doing so. Mr. Obama explained at great length the importance of businesses spreading their wealth around. Then, before Joe could respond further, Mr. Obama turned and left.

If Joe had had a chance to finish, he would have described the obstacles to starting his business and would have asked why he should go to all that trouble if the Government was going to take some of what he earned and give it to those who did not earn it?

Since Joe is not here to speak for himself, I will try to speak for him (having started three businesses of my own). Mind you, Joe has already gone through the training, apprenticeship, examinations, and expense of getting his Plumbing License – no small or inexpensive feat in itself.

First, Joe faces having to save about $200,000.00 to get started. Joe and his family are going to have to live more cheaply than they otherwise would be able to. If he can save $20,000 a year, it will take him 10 years; if he can save only $10,000, it will take him 20. If he is making $50,000 a year, say, working for another plumbing company, this is about how Joe and his family will have to live for all those years:

• No homeownership – can’t afford it. They will have to live in an apartment with rent of $1,000 or less.

• Entertainment. Forget it. No movie theaters, eating out, premium cable service, or cultural events. It’s picnics in the park and other free activities.

• Food. No special food or meals. No entertaining others at home. Buying basics in bulk will be the order of the day.

• Clothing. Only the bare necessities.

• Vacations. Joe will have no time for them, having to work the year round to get as much income as possible. The family will vacation at home.

• Cars. Keep the old ones running.

• College savings. What there is will have to go in the kitty. It’ll be Community College for the kids.

And, Joe is going to have to take as much overtime as he can get the whole way. Mind you, Joe will have earned and have been able to afford these things, if he weren’t saving for his dream and asking his family to deprive themselves for him.

After all that scrimping and saving, Joe now has his $200,000 and he’s ready to gear up to start. These will be his start-up expenses:

• Workshop (probably in a garage or basement): $10,000

• Plumbing truck, fitted out with signs, racks, tools and shelving: $50,000

• Equipment, welder, vices, handtrucks, pipecutters, etc.: $5,000

• Materials to start: $5,000

• Business space (rented or increased rent for space at home): $10,000 (first year)

• Printing, copying and advertising: $5,000

• Helper, total cost including health care, payroll taxes, etc.: $50,000

• Accounting and tax prep services (saved if his wife can do it – which keeps her from doing other income producing work, but is risky): $5,000.

That leaves $60,000 to cover emergencies, his own health care and payroll taxes, and his family living expenses. There will be no “profit;” only expenses.

It will take Joe two years to get his business up and running. The first year he will be getting his name out, asking for business, taking what jobs he can get, and maybe working on an hourly basis for someone else if things get tight. He will have to spend time drumming up business from builders, contractors and architects that he would otherwise have been able to spend plumbing. He will run through his $60,000 savings by the end of the year.

The second year will be make or break for Joe. It will be in the second year when he will learn if there is enough business for him to make a go of it. All his relatives and friends will have called upon him in the first year and he will be relying on the impersonal marketplace to sustain him from there on out. Joe will learn that he will have to work whenever the jobs call for it. There will be no regular hours; he will have to put in 50, 60, 70 hours a week to cover his costs and earn a little extra.

And, there is a chance that Joe’s business could fail and he could lose all of his $200,000. It will be a big risk. So, Joe will be motivated to work as hard as he can to make sure he makes it.

What will face Joe as he does his plumbing work for his customers? In addition to keeping his training and his plumbing license current, an additional expense, Joe will have to learn and obey all kinds of regulations and requirements which will cost him money, including:

• Plumbing and Building Code updates

• Environmental Protection regulations, including air quality and hazmat disposal

• Safety regulations (he’ll have to know the Federal Occupational Safety and Health Act backwards and forwards)

• State and Federal Labor laws

• State Sales Tax collection requirements

• State and Federal hiring and benefits laws, including Obamacare

At the end of the second year, Joe might earn $20,000 extra, if he’s lucky. Or, he might be broke and ashamed that he put his family through 12 to 22 years of misery so he could chase his dream.

But, let’s say that Joe makes it. Let’s say that after five years, he’s earning $250,000 a year above his expenses. Let’s say that he’s been able to hire 10 plumbers and buy 5 trucks. What’s in store for him? Why, spreading his wealth around, of course. Barack Obama proposes to tell him that there are limits on what he can earn. If he earns more, the Federal Government will take the rest and give it others – about 50% all told.

At this point, can we blame Joe if he asks if it’s worth it? Did those people to whom his earnings are being spread deny themselves a comfortable lifestyle in order to save the money? Did they take the risk of starting a business? Did they have the guts to put up all their savings; to bet on themselves with the chance of losing it all? Did they put in the hard work and long hours, year after year, to make the business grow; to build the business?

You can’t blame Joe if he gets discouraged. He could have taken the safe road and put that $200,000 in a mutual fund and been done with it. Why didn’t he? He didn’t do it just for the love of plumbing. If the chance for a better life weren’t there, he’d just keep working for someone else. No, he wanted the chance to succeed in business and to earn the kind of living that others in business earn.

Many people think that being “rich” is a condition that you are lucky enough to have; to have been born with or to have been “fortunate” enough to have been given. Nothing could be further from the truth. High earners stumble and fall and lose their money all the time. People don’t realize that there is risk in trying to make a better life for yourself. It takes a belief in yourself and in your dream, as well as guts, business smarts and hard work, year after year, to reach that level. And, as soon as you take it for granted, you can lose it all. Not many have that determination.

So, Joe may ask, “Why should I do that? Why bother?” He isn’t going to go through all that just because he loves plumbing. We’ve got to make sure he can make it all worthwhile for him and his family. And, the more we take from him and give to others, the less likely he is to want to do it. If enough of the Joe’s start pulling back, we will become a deteriorating nation. We can’t take Joe for granted.

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